During a Senate Energy Committee hearing on blockchain Tuesday, senators and experts discussed the potential for blockchain to create a distributed, resilient, and secure power grid.

Witnesses shared a common point to start their testimony: bitcoin is not the same as blockchain. While the cryptocurrency remains the most well-known application of blockchain and drew a fair amount of questions from the committee on its energy usage, witnesses drew their attention to the potential applications of the emerging technology.

“Bitcoin created a secure distributed currency ledger, but blockchain has become more than just bitcoin,” said Claire Henly, managing director at the Energy Web Foundation. “Blockchain presents a valuable opportunity for the U.S. electric grid to improve security, increase efficiency, and lower costs.” Henly noted that blockchain can act as a “distributed computer” with the ability to execute code, which “means a grid that is no longer centrally controlled and vulnerable to grid operator attack.” Henly also noted how a distributed electricity grid is more resilient to disasters, with more power sources in different areas.

“We’re exploring the application of blockchain to grid cybersecurity with support from the Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems program within the DoE (Department of Energy)” said Paul Skare, the chief cybersecurity and technical group manager for the Energy and Environment Directorate, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted the potential use case of patch management. “The amount of software that’s going to be in our system, the amount that people are going to depend on, and then the amount of updates and patches, and figuring that out (is key),” calling back to the Equifax breach and the mismanagement of patches.

Energy companies are already dipping their toe in and testing the waters of blockchain to improve efficiencies. Thomas Golden, program manager, technology innovation at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), noted that EPRI had convened a Utility Blockchain Interest Group with 40 energy companies to “discuss research findings, level-set technology intelligence, and share results of early pilots.”

However, panelists noted that blockchain is just one approach to these problems. “Blockchains are one possible technology platform among many for implementing these applications. None of these applications inherently require the use of blockchain technology, and we should pick the best tool for the job on a case-by-case basis,” said Arvind Narayanan, a professor of computer science at Princeton.

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